The John Chamberlain Murder Trial Begins

There's a long list of scary characters Orange County homicide prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh has put away: drug-crazed, Nazi-loving white supremacists; empty-hearted Vietnamese mob bosses; ruthless businessmen; drunken thugs; wildly angry, jealous husbands; and psychopaths who believe their souls gain power by killing.

Inside OC's Central Courthouse in Santa Ana, Baytieh is presently chasing five comparatively boring, low-level Orange County jail inmates he says brutally murdered John Derek Chamberlain, a pretrial defendant in custody with them, in October 2006. Their motive? Using the same powers of observation and reasoning that landed them in jail, they erroneously concluded that Chamberlain was a child molester and that it was their duty to punish him.

A majority of these defendants admits to playing varying roles in Chamberlain's grotesque demise, but each claims he is not a murderer. Sure enough, watch them sitting at the defense table, and you'll see five average, if slightly goofy-looking, guys who, at least outwardly, seem normal.

Anyone who has read my colleague Nick Schou's coverage of the killing during the past four and a half years (especially “Blind Spot,” March 30, 2007, and “'I Lit the Fire,'” May 4, 2008) knows what happened to Chamberlain was anything but normal. And I'm puzzled by the herd mentality that drove these presumably heterosexual young men to take Chamberlain, a 41-year-old straight man, to a “blind spot” in the F-West barracks at the Theo Lacy Jail; strip him; touch him in various, if unloving, ways for as long as 45 minutes; expose their penises to his face; urinate on him; yank his underwear down to gaze at his anus; and then, according to the autopsy report, spent a significant amount of time sodomizing him with spoons, pencils and a full tube of toothpaste.

When members of the group decided that Chamberlain was losing consciousness on the concrete floor next to their bunk beds, they used jail-issued cups to throw hot water on his body. They wanted the object of their attention to appear to them as a living human being at the same time they did everything they could to dehumanize him. Chamberlain's blood sprayed onto his attackers, but they didn't run in disgust. They continued to stomp and beat him.

Did you know that these men debated whether they should stick their erect penises into Chamberlain's ass?

Though their trial is expected to last three months, we're unlikely to ever obtain a direct explanation for the brazen, same-sex urges of guys who, in law-enforcement interviews, claim to abhor even the thought of homosexuality. I shared this observation with an attorney friend. He laughed and quipped, “Objection, argumentative!”

Perhaps the point isn't relevant in this ongoing trial. Defense lawyers are employing differing strategies depending on their client's situation. For example, Keith M. Davidson, the attorney for Jared Petrovich, wants jurors to believe that jail deputy Kevin Taylor ordered inmates to “tax” Chamberlain after outing him falsely as a “chester” (slang for a child molester). Edward Muñoz, the attorney for Miguel Angel Guillen, says an “unhealthy” and “deputy-condoned” jail culture that operates foremost on fear caused Chamberlain's death. Fred Thiagarajah, who represents Stephen Paul Carlstrom, asked jurors if they believe his client's alleged lone kick should qualify him for a murder conviction. Raul Villafaña's attorney, Earl Broady Jr., simply says his client has accurately denied involvement and fully cooperated with investigators. Michael Currier told jurors that anyone who claims they saw his client, Garret Eugene Aguilar, abuse Chamberlain is a liar.

According to Baytieh and his co-counsel, Deputy District Attorney Keith Bogardus, all of the defense strategies are “baloney,” one of Baytieh's favorite words.

“We are here today because on Oct. 5, 2006, in the Orange County Jail, these five defendants, the evidence is going to prove, decided to act as a judge, a jury and as an executioner,” Baytieh said in his 59-minute, Aug. 8 opening statement. “They punched him. They kicked him. They stomped him. They sexually assaulted him, and they tortured him. . . . He was beaten to death.”

One gauge of the savageness of the attack was this: The human body has 24 rib bones. According to the coroner, Chamberlain suffered 43 rib fractures. “Waves and waves” of inmates, even defense lawyers concede, beat Chamberlain's nose, lips, ears and eyes to a bloody pulp. Lacerations and contusions covered his body. They tossed spaghetti onto his face and stomped his head repeatedly.

“We aren't going to sugarcoat anything,” said Baytieh. “He was beaten over and over and over and over and over and over and over and again and again.”

Contrary to defense allegations about Taylor, the veteran prosecutor believes that while the deputy may have been lazy and incompetent, he is a scapegoat for the defendants. Baytieh cautioned jurors on the topic, saying, “Don't reach any conclusions. Wait till you hear everything.”

One thing the jury apparently won't hear much of concerns Taylor. The deputy claimed he was too busy watching a Los Angeles Dodgers game on television and sending text messages to girlfriends to notice that, 67 feet away and directly in his line of sight, dozens of inmates were pummeling Chamberlain. Before sheriff's department officials allowed entry to an independent investigator from the Orange County district attorney's office, deputies erased a video of the crime and doctored an official log.

During his opening statement, defense attorney Thiagarajah called Taylor an “ex-deputy.” This brought a quick prosecution objection. Judge James A. Stotler has consented to a government request to keep the deputy's status (fired) away from consideration by jurors. California's Police Officers' Bill of Rights goes to ridiculous lengths to shield law-enforcement officers—especially dirty ones—from public accountability.

In open court but outside the presence of the jury, Stotler told Thiagarajah to not refer to Taylor as an “ex-deputy”; Baytieh had called him “deputy” during his opening argument, which—after the admonition to Thiagarajah—prompted another defense lawyer to point out it was not factual to call him a deputy at this time. Stotler then ordered everyone to refer to Taylor only as “Kevin Taylor.”

The name debate seems trivial. What's abundantly clear is that while this deputy was on duty, Theo Lacy inmates in F-West barracks believed that Taylor was their devious overlord and would punish them with a loss of privileges if they didn't beat Chamberlain. Or, alternately, that they, the inmates, were running the asylum, so to speak. Either way, the hideous result sadly tells us that we aren't as civilized as we'd like to think.

This column appeared in print as “Staring Into the Blind Spot: As the trial for John Chamberlain's grisly jailhouse slaughter begins, some defense lawyers claim the deputies made their clients do it.”

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